Tonight, we burn the king of straw
I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time; his writing on the Balkans, in particular, strikes me as not only obstinately self-deluded but actively poisonous. Francis Wheen, Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch (a fairly unlovely troika, I admit) have now published a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre. They demonstrate conclusively that Diana Johnstone, a writer commended by Chomsky, systematically minimises and downplays the massacre, using an armoury of devices familiar to any student of Holocaust denial. They also show that Chomsky’s commendation of Johnstone’s work specifically and emphatically endorses its factual content, rather than being based on a ‘free speech defence’.
If you’ve been inclined to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt – or to dismiss him and Kamm as equal and opposite obsessives who deserve each other – you should read this now.
I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time, but I’ve always assumed that his eminence in linguistics was unchallenged; I’ve certainly never felt I had the academic chops to challenge it. Fortunately not everyone is so timid. Thanks to Stuart and Dave, I’ve recently become aware of Chris Knight’s critique of Chomsky the linguist. Knight, who has nothing but respect for Chomsky as a political activist, traces the tangled evolution of Chomsky’s linguistics and finds it wanting. More, he argues that it is shaped by the twin imperatives offered by Chomsky’s institutional background (military-funded computing) and by an anarchist mistrust of social science. The result is that, as a linguist, Chomsky is driven to positions of Cartesian rationalism, biological determinism and psychological individualism: we have language because we are the kind of animal that we are; we are that kind of animal because at some unknowable point we just, mysteriously, became that kind of animal; and nothing about how we interact with one another in society has, or has ever had, any bearing on the question. Needless to say, Knight finds this an extremely unsatisfactory account of human nature. This essay (also published in this expanded version (PDF)) is well worth reading, if only for some extraordinary passages of peevish circular logic from Chomsky on the subject of the social sciences (“I don’t think they’ve ever made any great breakthroughs, so they can’t have done, or I would have heard of them…”).
Smash your idols, kids! (Only not my idols, all right? I’ll deal with them myself. Later.)